Category Archives: Art

Art and the Animal Kingdom

Caesar from one of the Planet of the Apes remakes

Criteria for what sets humanity from the rest of the world certainly has changed over time. Consider the act of tool making, for example. It was largely thought this was an act that only humans did — until Jane Goodall spent a lot of time hanging out with primates. She noticed a chimp using a blade of grass to get termites out of a hill and into his mouth. That was in 1960, and since then, other bits of tool-making evidence has popped up in the primate world.

Okay, how about the inhumanity of murder and waging war? Evidence of that has been discovered, too, and I don’t mean rather fun movies like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Actually, this goes back to Jane Goodall, again. In 1974, she witnessed the dissolution of a tribe into what would become The Gombe Chimpanzee War.

This was a conflict that lasted about two years. Goodall noticed how the death of the central alpha male led to the disintegration of the tribe. Feuding factions jockeyed for who got to become the next alpha. Sounds positively Shakespearean doesn’t it? Clearly, humans are not the only animals with profoundly dark sides.

This juxtaposition writes itself,

Chimps are not always the warm, fuzzy, cute animals many of us would like to think. Little did former hack actor and American president Ronald Reagan know that some apes can rip a limb off and and beat something to death with it. I am guessing that he didn’t have to deal with any such incidents on the set of Bedtime for Bonzo back in 1951. So, tool making and reigning death upon enemies are no longer considered uniquely human.

What is left, then? It’s an act of human vanity to ask how we “are better” than the rest of the animal kingdom, but it is a necessary intellectual pursuit. It’s the only way we really can explain our humanity. Definitions are hard to establish in a void of other references. So, let’s go to one of the other oft mentioned delineation points: art.

Can we assume that the above painting was made by a spastic monkey? Think about it! Force feed a chimp enough high-octane espresso and give that primate access to cans of paint and a canvas. You could plausibly suggest that the above could result. So, did a monkey do this while in a poo-flinging rage?

Um. No. It’s actually American abstract artist Jackson Pollock — who was definitely not a chimpanzee. None of his work can be attributed to poo-flinging rages. Yet, he did throw and drip a lot of paint around. As revolutionary as his work was, it now seems commonplace. I mean, I can see knockoff attempts at abstract art in the hallways of high-end hotels around China. You can also see similar work for sale cheaply at art school dropout yard sales.

So is this a Jackson Pollock?

No.

Is it the work of a failed art student ?

No.

Is this something that’s hanging in the posh corridor of a Chinese hotel catering to international business men?

I neither confirm nor deny that. Actually, it’s quite possible.

But, one thing is certain.

It’s the work of Congo the Chimp, and he was once a sensation in the 1950s art world. Believe it or not, even artists like Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali bought the ape’s work and added it to their personal collections. But, did Congo — all by his lonesome — become inspired one day to pick up a brush and express his inner self? No.

Congo was trained by surrealist painter Desmond Morris. This is kind of emblematic of something that has occurred in the art world. Congo was not the only non-human artist. Over the years, elephants, dolphins, donkeys, and rabbits have put paint to paper. Even more, there are 14 elephants in Thailand that comprise an improvisational orchestra.

The idea, here, is that humans are not the only creative, imaginative creatures on this planet. The idea, possibly, stretches into even the realm of insects. Consider the following art installation at Qingguo Lane in Changzhou.

This is 虫子诗, which translates as “Bug Poetry.” It can be found at the Heping Road side of Qingguo.

This whole display is not just dedicated to insects. As the Chinese title suggests, it’s dedicated particularly to the “poetry” insects have written.

This exhibit is more like an outdoor anthology, with individual “poems” displayed in their own special “scripts.” The poems are, of course, completely unreadable. One gets the feeling, though, that appreciating art such as this requires also an appreciation for Chinese calligraphy. Written Chinese uses pictographs as opposed to letters, and each Character can sometimes be appreciated as a work of art unto itself given the skills of the calligrapher holding the brush. But, then one has to wonder. Why is this weird bug exhibition in Changzhou? Who thought up this stuff?

This is actually based off of the work of Zhu Yingchun. He is an artist and director of the Nanjing Normal University Research Center of Book Culture. What is on display here in Changzhou has been taken from his latest book, which translates into English as “Bug Poetry.”

Guangxi Normal University Press released this in 2020, and purports to be a collection of poems. This is not the first time Zhu has turned to insects. While in his Nanjing studio, he actually does study the patterns insects actually create. It’s more than likely that the bug poetry display in Changzhou is a promotion for this recently released book.

That’s well and fine. However, one does have to wonder. Are the pages in Zhu’s book, as well as the Qingguo Lane exhibition dedicated to it, the actual work of insects? While Zhu himself might argue yes, a more realistic answer would be no. The art he finds in the insect world is more of an extension of himself.

And so, one now has to circle back to the initial question. What separates humanity from the animal kingdom? People used to assume that tool making and organized violence were unique to mankind, but that’s not the case. Jane Goodall found instances of that occurring naturally. For the chimps in question, that’s innate behavior. No human taught that to them. The same can’t be said when it comes to high-end art. Whether it’s animals painting, elephants preforming music, and bugs creating their own special calligraphy, it is still a byproduct of human creativity. This is not an knock on such art, either. It’s still interesting enough to try and wrap one’s head around.

Some Urban Art Downtown

Graffiti is not a cultural thing the way in China as it is in my part of America, which is the greater Philadelphia, New Jersey, and New York City region. Murals and tagging is just a thing you don’t see in Changzhou. That being said, it does exist here, and this blog has covered the biggest site over in Zhonglou. That urban art is beneath two bridges flanking Jiangsu University of Technology. There is one other place in Changzhou that has featured the ever-changing nature of graffiti for years. This is on a wall on the south side of People’s Hospital #1 in the city center and not that far from the Wenhuagong / Culture Palace subway station on Line 1.

Some Urban Art in Zhonglou

As somebody who enjoys looking at art, there is a special place in my heart for graffiti — especially murals. It does have cultural resonance across urban America, but it’s especially the case in New York City, Philadelphia, and New Jersey. For example, Asbury Park (where I used to live before coming to China) definitely doesn’t feel like a city; it’s a beach town, but the ocean front features a fair share graffiti. A lot of it has remained over the years and is just part of Asbury Park’s individual character.

This is a phenomenon not necessarily seen in China as much, and that is most definitely the case for Changzhou. There is one part of the city, though, that has had it’s fair share of it over the years. It’s the undersides of the bridges on both sides of Jaingsu University of Technology in Zhonglou.

My most recent visit to reminded me of a fundamental truth regarding urban street art, but I’ll get to that point after a few pictures. These are a selection and is by no way a comprehensive compiling.

The greatest compliment you can pay a graffiti artist is to take pictures of their work. Urban street art, especially in the USA, can be a highly temporary thing. For example, the pieces currently beneath the two canal bridges near JUT are largely not the same as when I first found these two spots years ago. First of all, graffiti is against the law — the artist is vandalizing somebody else’s property. So, colorful tags and murals can often disappear when authorities whitewash and paint over them. But that’s not the only threat. Often, the biggest nuisance to artists are actually other artists.

In this particular culture, deliberately painting over somebody else’s work is considered the highest sign of disrespect. Doing stuff like this in urban America can lead to actual fights and other crime — never mind that the art itself as actually illegal.

Somebody painted the black mask on the original above and ruined it. Trust me, I know what this piece used to look like. Thankfully, I do have pictures of this area from a few years ago in my photo archive. The travesty of the above makes me actually want to go back and find those pics to see what was. But here is another truth: years from now, this area will likely mutate again and look different again or may even have all the pieces removed. Such is the nature of this type of art.

A Mysterious Letter L

Years ago, I created this blog when I bought an ebike. The idea was to wander around Changzhou and figure out what stuff is and then write about it. So, this literally entails sometimes saying, “I’m going to see what is down this street,” and then cruising down said street. Lots of times nothing comes of it. I did this recently on the above road. It seemed weird to me because much of this particular road has walls on both sides, and it zigzags through undeveloped land.

Near one or two small housing complexes, there are these vegetables on the side of the road. Microfarming like this is more common than what one might think. Typically, this occurs in areas of a lower socioeconomic status. Oddly enough, there are signs everywhere telling people not to plant vegetables. The soil is being treated.

That makes sense to a degree, because once I hit this bridge over a canal, the walls on the sides of the road stopped, and small industrial parks started popping up. And then, that’s when I found a tiny park, and this weird bit of public sculpture.

Abstract art is pretty common when it comes to public sculpture in this town. This had me scratching my head because it’s shaped like a big L. Towards the top, there’s what looks like a red revolutionary flag with another L in yellow. Using Pleco on my phone, I looked up the Chinese. Those characters are 腾飞,and that basically means soar, fly swiftly upwards. A secondary meaning has “make rapid advance; develop rapidly, take off.” The back of the pedestal has nothing but the date this was erected — 15 years ago. So, I have absolutely no clue as to what this is supposed to be. I just know I haven’t seen anything else like it in Changzhou.

Old Qingguo Postcards

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From time to time, I sometimes buy philatelic products — especially if they have a greater Jiangsu or regional Jiangnan theme. This isn’t so much for myself but for my father. He’s a lifelong stamp collector, and his interest in Chinese stamps mostly comes from me giving them to him since I live here.

So, recently, I happened on a collection of Qingguo Lane themed postcards. These actually already have the postage printed on them. In terms of stamp collecting, this is something that father would term “postal stationary,” which is a smaller niche within stamp collecting.Yes, there is something infinitely more nerdy than stamps: the people who collect pre-postage marked envelopes and post cards. But who am I to judge? I collect Magic: The Gathering cards. The nerd gene is strong in my family!

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While the English name of the set seems to be Elegant Rhyme of Qingguoxiang, these cards really have nothing to do with poetry. The Chinese title of 唐氏八宅  seems more practical. It can be translated as the Eight Houses of the Tang Family.

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The cards themselves are relatively simple — black line drawings on a tan background. However, since Qingguo recently was revamped and reopened to the public, I decided to see if I could actually find the places depicted on these cards.

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A majority of them did correspond with actual locations. Interestingly enough, some didn’t. The locations actually don’t look like the pictures, either. How could that be? There’s an easy answer to that: these postcards were issued ten years ago in 2009.  So, these cards are commemorating the Qingguo that once was. As for the homes that are no longer there, it’s possible that they will be at some point. What was recently opened was just a first step. There are plans to add to Qingguo over the years.

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I took the above photo back in 2014.That was before the area was cordoned off and thoroughly demolished and rebuilt. My guess is the Qingguo of that year also didn’t look like what is on the China Post issued cards. Qingguo of that era was crumbling and nearly derelict. Despite these disparities, the cards themselves can be taken as a celebration of the area in general. Historically influential Changzhou families — like the Tangs — did live here. Still, the disparity of what was and what things are going forward is a typically accurate display of this city’s extremely quick economic development.

 

 

Qianlong in Changzhou

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Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong (1711 to 1799) has many distinctions in Chinese history. He sat on the throne for sixty or so years, and he had one of the longest reigns. Instead of dying while in power, he gave up the throne out of respect to his grandfather, Kangxi. As a result, Kangxi’s time as Chinese Emperor is longer, but only by one year. Qianlong patronized the arts heavily, and he himself composed a lot of poetry. In world culture, he may actually be the most prolific writer of all time.

Also like his grandfather, Qianlong liked to travel and actually inspect his kingdom first hand. As a result, you end up seeing public references to him all over the Jiangnan region. Changzhou is no different. There are stone markers related to him in Dongpo Park in Tianning. This is basically down the street from Hongmei while on Yanling Road.

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During one visit to the city, Emperor Qianlong actually wrote a few poems mentioning Changzhou. The Emperor greatly admired Su Dongpo as a poet, and Dongpo Park is where the great writer and artist landed after traveling down the Grand Canal. A few hundred years ago, Qianlong actually wanted to visit that very same spot. These verses were carved onto steles — giant stone slabs engraved with calligraphy. That’s where one issue pops up. Chinese calligraphy, even when it’s black ink on white paper, can be hard to read. I showed a couple of pictures to some Chinese friends.

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They had a hard time making out anything. I have tried to see if I could locate these poems online, and I even used Chinese search terms like 乾龙常州市诗, and I still couldn’t locate the poems.Then, I realized my search terms had a Chinese typo. I think “Qianlong” in characters is 乾隆 not 乾龙. I think I might have located them, but it’s going to take a while to see if I can get these poems correctly translated somewhere done the line.

In the meantime, these stele carvings are an interesting little corner in one of Changzhou’s more charming little parks.

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Celebrating American Car Culture in Changzhou

“The Changzhou public bus system is more than likely better than any bus system in America.”

When I say this, my Chinese university students usually gasp in shock. They become even more flabbergasted when I say the US is pretty bad at public transportation. If they counter by bringing up the New York City subway system, I remind them that New York City is always the exception and not the norm, and a lot of the subway stations often smell like a public bathroom — and I am saying that as a New Jersey guy that has always had a very large soft spot for The Big Apple.

Owning a car is not a sign of wealth or status, because even poor or broke people have to drive to get to work.  It’s just that they own a jalopy, wreck, hooptie, rattletrap, clunker, bucket of bolts, lemon, junker, or any other colorful noun that can mean “old car that breaks down often.” America, I always tell my students, has a very car-centered culture. Instead of opting for an intricate rail system, President Eisenhower initiated the construction of a network of super highways in 1956 that has defined America up to the current day.

So, it’s interesting that the Changzhou Museum has a temporary photography exhibit celebrating this aspect of Americana.

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It’s located on the ground floor of the museum.

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There are some old black and white photos as well as some vintage illustrated posters.

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Plus, there are some contemporary shots on display. Not to mention this…

 

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This shot is particularly grainy. That’s because I took this picture with my cell phone (of course), and it’s basically of a TV screen playing a documentary. Some of the guys featured are true whackjobs.  Lastly, I sort of had to take a photo of the place I now love to hate….

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There is a wall of license plates from all 50 states. Not represented, it seemed, were Washington DC and territories like Puerto Rico, Guam, and The Virgin Islands. Anyhow, it seemed like a quirky temporary exhibit. It runs until November 18th.

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Map location for the Changzhou Museum

Brightly Colored Mother’s Love

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Who says my heart of a grass seedling

Can ever repay her warm spring sun?

–Meng Jiao, from Traveler’s Song

Meng Jiao 孟郊 clearly loved and cared for his mother. The above lines — taken from this translation of “A Traveler’s Song” — convey that as do the rest of the poem. For a large part of his life, he refused to take the imperial exams, but he eventually relented once he reached middle age. A civil service job, he reasoned, would allow him to financially support her as she grew older.  This eventually led him to a ministerial position in Liyang — a city to the south that is part of Changzhou’s prefecture. There, he dithered around among streams and forests while composing poems.

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“A Traveler’s Song” (遊子吟) was one of those poems he wrote while living in Liyang. It’s a short bit of a verse. It speaks of a son about to set off to travel, and his mom is sewing his clothing for him before he leaves. The poem doesn’t mention where the son is going or how long he will be gone. It’s just the departure is impending, and that both the son and the mother will miss each other.

Generality can be a blessing and a curse in poetry. It largely depends on the linguistic skill of the poet in conveying emotion. This poem, in the variety of English language translations I have read, uses generality and vagueness rather well. It gives a reader just enough information while allowing them to read their own life into the lines.

For example, Meng Jiao’s poem remind me of my own mom. While I was in college in West Virginia, my parents still lived overseas — The Netherlands for a year, and then the UK until my father retired from the US Department of Defense. I came to visit for a few weeks every Christmas and New Years. Eventually, I would have to get back on the airplane and fly across the Atlantic. I wouldn’t see them again until summer, when they would come to the US to see my brother, sister, and myself. There was always talk of time and distance every time my Mom and I parted ways.  Of course, plenty of other readers around China and the rest of the world have had no problem understanding this poem. It is one of Meng Jiao’s most famous works.

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It is always interesting to see how a famous piece of literature transcends written text and takes on a life out in the world. “A Traveler’s Tale” is actually part of the decorative lanterns at Dinosaur Park in Xinbei. A large chunk of the colorful art on display have more generalized holiday themes. However, there is a portion close to Hehai Road that recreates Changzhou history.

I found this recently because a friend and I went on a stroll specifically to look at the lanterns and laugh at their gaudy silliness. We both sort of stopped and lingered at the Meng Jiao display, because, well, part of it looked a little creepy.

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At the time, we both didn’t know what we were looking at. The reddish marks on her face look a little like bruises. I didn’t quite know what to make about the black smudges around the both eyes. Now that I have had time to think about it, it’s the limitations of the medium when it comes to this sort of public art. Spring Festival lanterns easily look childish. The vibrant, bright colors have something to do with that. However, if you look at Meng Jiao’s mom, and the nearby recreation of Su Dongpo, they have a difficulty in conveying age.

Of course, I am nit picking. The point Spring Festival lantern displays is to do exactly what my friend and I did — walk around and smile at them. There is plenty of time to do just that. While the western holiday season is coming to an end, the run up to Spring Festival is just beginning.

 

The 36 to Hell and Back

Hell, and the doorway to it, can be found in Xinbei. Somebody could accuse me of being facetious, and they would be absolutely, 100% correct! I am not talking about a mythological nether region where the souls of the damned are tormented. Actually, I’m talking about a statuary recreation of an underworld that is part of Chinese Buddhism. The torture meted out in this version of hell can be particularly brutal, but the saving grace is that the damned can pay their karmic debt and eventually be reincarnated. In Buddhism, people are not meant to rot in such a place for eternity.

This display can be found at Wanfo Temple. There was a previous Real Changzhou post about this place more than a year ago, but  that was more of explaining what the place was and what it culturally meant. Back then, I found it while riding my ebike in Northern Xinbei. Recently, I figured out how to get there on the public bus.

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Going north, I boarded the 36 at a stop in front of Xinbei Wanda Plaza. However, there are stops at points south of here. The 36 originates at the downtown train station and terminates in a part of Xinbei that’s just a couple of kilometers from the city line with Yangzhong. For a large section of the journey, this bus travels north on Tongjiang Road before turning.

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Eventually, I found myself in a small town called Weitang 圩塘镇. Instead of giving the street name, I would just say if you see the chimney from the industrial port along the Yangtze River, it’s time to get off the bus.

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Walk in a straight line towards that smoke stack. Sometimes, it will be hidden behind a building, but you can still see evidence of it on a clear day.

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The walkway might become a bit narrow, as you will end up walking through a working class neighborhood of desolate concrete. However, if you keep walking straight, you will not get lost. And trust me, I have been lost in this neighborhood before; it’s labyrinthine and it’s easy to make a wrong turn. So, I can’t stress how you only have to walk a straight line from the previously mentioned bus stop.

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A ticket runs about 10 RMB. Also, there are old ladies nearby that will want to sell you ceremonial incense. I skipped it this time, but a prior time I came here, a packet ran me about 10 additional RMB.

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As soon as you see something that looks like Guanyin dispensing mercy to troubled souls, you have almost found Hell.In the background of the above picture, you can see the entrance to the hall.

 

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The above picture doesn’t really do justice the gruesome detail on display here. So, consider this as an advisory. Graphic depictions of violence shall follow.

 

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The above three photos are just a minuscule sampling of what is here. A potential visitor should know that this a real religious site and not a wax museum like Madame Tussaud’s in London. The amount of carnage and brutality on display here may seem outlandish, but this is a place where I have always heard monks chanting in the background — every time I have been here. Christian cathedrals in Europe have been treated like tourist attractions, but visitors are still expected to treat the place with some sense of solemnity. The same could be said for Buddhist temples in Changzhou, China, and elsewhere in Asia.

Xu Zhimo Romantically in Tianning

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Image of Mr. Handsome Courtesy of Wikipedia

A snowflake falls from a winter cloud, but it seems intent. It’s consumed with desire. As it flutters its way to earth; it works hard to avoid forests, mountains, and valleys. It does not want to land on something or somebody meaningless. It knows what it wants its destiny to be: it has to seek out a garden and fall onto a beautiful woman so that it could melt and “dissolve into the cordial waves of her heart.”

This is the gist of 徐志摩 Xu Zhimo’s famous poem, “A Snowflake’s Happiness” — 雪花的快樂. My summation is a bit crude, because there is more at work here. The whole poem is a complicated metaphor about love, and that gets into the mechanics of how it was written. The first line goes like this:

If I were a snowflake

The voice of the poem is not declaring, “I am a snow flake.“ The operative word here, if we are trusting the translator, is if.  That means its a metaphor and not a description of real life or something following a more narrative context. Much like other effective poems, the middle is there to build tension and led to the emotional payoff of the end. Of course, I’m not basing this off the Chinese original, but a translation I found on a blog. This version reads like a few of the others that I have found

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This is well and fine, one might say. But what does this have to do with Changzhou? Xu, after all, was born in Zhejiang and spent a lot of time studying in the US and the UK. Living in England is the subject his most anthologized poem, “Taking Leave of Cambridge Again.” As it turns out, Xu had a few links to Changzhou. The first comes by way of his romantic relationship with Lu Xiaoman.陆小曼. She spent sometime growing up in the Dragon City and had a definite connection to it. By default, that gave Xu an connection, too.

During his writing career, Xu also wrote a poem about Tianning Temple. The temple’s website even acknowledges this. This has been translated into English, but its only available in print. It isn’t online, and the collection of verse does not have an eBook version. I would have bought a copy if it had. One can shove the Chinese version into an online translator, but that really does a bunch of indignities to poetry. Verse is a medium where the choice of language is mostly exact and precise. It’s all about the subtleties of nuance.  Translating something like this with Google is like taking a beautiful, delicate, and exquisite piece of porcelain and dropping it into a blender.

 

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Despite these literary and historical connections to Changzhou, there is something real that somebody can go see. It’s in Tianning, near a northern exit of Hongmei Park and just down the street from the downtown train station. There is a statue depicting a romantic couple, and the are standing next carved metal baring the title of Xu’s snowflake poem.

 

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It would be easy to pass this by and think it’s the only thing referencing Xu Zhimo in the area. However, if a person were to descend a nearby staircase and stand along the canal, they would see this.

 

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These are inscribed tablets reproducing pages from Xu Zhimo’s diaries. This, in particular comes from 爱眉小札日记. This diary has been published in Chinese as a book, but like a lot of Xu’s prose, it has not been translated into English. If one were to look at some of what has been reproduced on this wall, it’s a emblematic of Xu and the writer he was.

 

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Of course, Xu was a hopeless romantic. He not only had a relationship with Lu Xiaoman, but he had conducted affairs with lots of other women. If you take the content and context of his writing and put that to one side, there is something more stylistic. The passages on display near Hongmei are bilingual. English sentences like

Oh May! Love me; give me all your love. Let us become one…

are interspersed into Chinese. This is no accident. Xu also worked as a translator, and he was proficient enough in English to study both in the UK and the USA. This also gets into the type of writer he was.

In some ways, Xu Zhimo can be compared to Ezra Pound in America. Pound looked at traditional forms in English language prosody and wanted to throw them out, start over, and bring in something new. He had translated Chinese poets like Li Bai and felt their influence. Pound also translated Japanese verse, and his famous “In The Station of the Metro” poem reads like a haiku. On the other hand, Xu Zhimo  returned from study abroad. and did the same thing. Only, he loved western poets like Keats and Shelley. He wanted to throw out traditional Chinese poetic standards and write something more influenced by the west.  In short: Xu was not immune to experimenting and playing around with language.

Whether it is by way of his Tianning Temple poem or his relationship with Lu Xiaoman, Xu had some connection with Changzhou. This city has had a long reputation for helping cultivate scholars and and people of intellect. Xu Zhimo definitely didn’t come from here, but as evidenced by sculpture and canal-side engraved passages, Changzhou will still celebrate its link to him.